The First Time Google Alerted Me to Leave for an Appointment

on October 7, 2016

The first time Google alerted me to leave for an appointment, it was one of those “Aha!” moments. I thought to myself, “That’s amazing!” as I realized it was smart enough to check my calendar, learn where and at what time my appointment was, calculate the time I needed to leave to arrive on time, and then sent me an alert to depart.

But how quickly we adapt and take much of this for granted. Now there are numerous apps that make decisions and are trying to think for us. They monitor our email, calendar, and location and, using artificial or some other sort of intelligence, take action we’d normally do on our own.

TripIt will detect when you’re emailed an itinerary from an airline and add the flights to your calendar. Waze will determine when a traffic jam occurs and route you around it. Google will determine when an appointment invite is emailed to you and put it on your calendar. So many apps now have this level of intelligence to create an action without our intervention.

I’m finding, however, as this occurs more frequently, there are numerous errors that occur. I need to intervene more often and make corrections because the assumptions these apps make are usually based on fairly primitive logic. Not every mention in an email is meant to be actionable. Not every itinerary is yours and needs to be scheduled. While the apps try to be helpful, there are many times they get it wrong; perhaps 25% of the time.

As an example, a misaddressed email sent to me contained a receipt for train tickets bought in the UK and TripIt added it to my calendar. I received a Google Now alert to leave for a meeting, even though it was a phone meeting, whose invitation was emailed to me and contained an address. Sometimes I find an action is created twice because more than one app is monitoring the same thing. A plane flight will often show up twice on my calendar, put there by both TripIt and Google. And now the Calendar on iOS 10 is starting to look for events to add automatically. Yes, I can go back to each of the apps’ settings and turn some off or others on. But as more apps do this without asking, it’s time-consuming. Clearly, the simple logic that awed me the first time may not be sufficient without becoming much more intelligent.

It’s not that big a deal right now since we can make these manual corrections and learn which apps work well and which do not. But it shows there are some serious challenges the software has to overcome to work reliably enough so we won’t turn it off and avoid using it all together. Some apps will need to be more careful or less aggressive than others. Some will be very aggressive and make many more assumptions. The burden is on us to filter out what doesn’t work and use what does.

While these new capabilities are designed to simplify our lives, for now, they seem to be requiring more time to manage because of the unintended consequences.

What needs to be done? The software needs to learn our habits and preferences and tailor their actions on an individual basis. They need to query us sometimes before taking action. When Waze sends us on a circuitous local route with numerous turns through a sketchy neighborhood to avoid freeway congestion, it needs to inform us what it’s doing, what to expect, and ask us if we really want to do it.

This is an exciting area with lots of potential to think for us, but we’re just in its infancy and there’s a lot more room for improvement.